Community reacts to YMCA member center closure

August 21, 2012
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Austin’s YMCA member center is slated to close Oct. 1, and some neighborhood advocates say the largest community area in Chicago can’t afford to lose the valuable service.

The 175 Austin Y members who use the center’s exercise equipment, along with other amenities, are being transferred to the McCormick Tribune YMCA, located about four miles away at Cortland Street and Lawndale Avenue.

How many of those Austin Y members will choose to transfer to the Logan Square location is not clear at the moment, a spokeswoman for the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago said in an e-mail.

Austin’s YMCA member center, located at 501 N. Central Ave., includes exercise equipment, two full-size gymnasiums, a youth game room and computer lab.

Come Oct. 1, the center’s various after-school, summer and weekend programs along with services for youth and adults will be held at nearby Horatio May Community Academy, 512 S. Lavergne Ave.

The Austin YMCA already has a relationship with May through the Community School’s Initiative, which brings after-school programming and outside resources into six Chicago Public Schools across Chicago’s West and South Sides, Chicago Y spokeswoman Sherrie Medina wrote in an e-mail.

Austin’s member center will shut down due to deterioration of the building, and there’s no plans to replace the building, which opened in 1913, wrote Medina.

The YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago declined to be interviewed for this story but did respond to some of AustinTalks’ questions by e-mail.

“The Austin YMCA is an aging facility with greatly diminished membership use,” wrote Medina. “Families aren’t using our center the way they used to, so we are providing programming to meet them where they are.”

The 229 residents living at the nearly 100-year old facility will not be affected — at least for now.

“At this time, no decisions have been made – we are still exploring options for the future of the Austin housing facility,” Medina wrote.

Amisha Patel, executive director of the Grassroots Collaborative, which advocates for poor and working-class neighborhoods, said the closure of the member center could have a “devastating” impact on Austin.

“The loss of the Y in the community, combined with the already lack of investment happening in that community, is really troubling,” Patel said.

The Y is a key offering in low-income communities where achieving good health can be a struggle, Patel said.

Patel said the city of Chicago is failing its own obligation to make sure communities have programs and services they need to live healthy lives.

It’s highly unlikely Austin YMCA members will travel four miles to the nearest member center, Patel added.

“Anytime you ask folks to leave a neighborhood to go miles away, there is always a huge drop out,” she said. “It’s not realistic.”

The closed member center is not the first time the Austin Y discontinued services.

In 2010, the YMCA announced it would no longer offer services for mental health patients.

Shanika Finley, an Austin resident and 2011 aldermanic candidate for the 37th Ward, made the uncertainty of the building’s future a key issue during her run for alderman.

She called the member center closure “deplorable,” and said this is a “systematic” attempt to shut down the entire facility.

“This is the same thing that the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago did in other areas,” Finley said. “Slowly but surely, they are shutting down their facilities and selling facilities.”

Other locations that have closed recently in the city include the Roseland YMCA, which was a 4 E. 111th St. until 2005. and the New City YMCA, 1515 N. Halsted, which was near the former Cabrini-Green public housing complex until it shut down in 2007.

“YMCA is basically turning their backs in the communities where services are needed greatest,” Finley said. “They are focused more on the bottom line, which is profit. You don’t expect that out of a non-profit.”

Medina disagreed.

“The Y is motivated by the causes of youth development, healthy living and social responsibility – our non-profit network of 25 membership centers, five camps and hundreds of programs across the city serve more than a half a million people each year,” Medina wrote.

Finley called on Austin’s elected officials to step in and stop the closure.

“Our community, with the violence, with the high rate of foreclosure, we need the YMCA to remain open, and we need our elected officials to intervene on the state level, county level or the city level,” she said. “If it closes, it just shows the lack of caring on their part for their residents.”

Austin Alds. Michael Chandler (24th), Jason Ervin (28th), Deborah Graham (29th) and Emma Mitts (37th) did not return AustinTalks’ requests in time for publication to comment on the center’s closing.

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